April 11, 2017

Dun-dun … dun-dun … dun-dun—remember that scary music in Jaws? When it played, you just knew something awful was about to happen. That same sort of foreshadowing happened to Massachusetts teachers unions. The dark money sharks out to get them in the charters school fight of 2016 were the exact same sharks that funded a dark money operation against them in 2012. But the teachers never knew it.

In 2016 the charters school ballot campaign featured a dizzying conspiracy of dark money fronts and hedge fund billionaires shuffling millions around in an effort the teachers saw as an assault on their union rights. In 2016 the ballot committee receiving the funding was Great Schools Massachusetts and the dark money front was Families for Excellent Schools.

In 2012 the ballot committee receiving the funding was the Committee for Excellence in Education and the dark money front was Stand for Children. But it looks like the real, actual, living, breathing, flesh and blood check writers were the exact same Massachusetts plutocrats in both years: Joanna Jacobson, Seth Klarman, and Joshua Bekenstein, all of whom are also regular contributors to the Massachusetts non-profit Strategic Grant Partners.

As for 2016, I’ve already argued that these characters are the “true source” of the funding in 2016 and that the Office of Campaign and Political Finance should investigate them for violations of the Campaign Finance Law. Read that argument here. For more on the 2016 dark money shell game, read here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Dun-dun … dun-dun … dun-dun – let’s turn to 2012. In 2011 Stand for Children began to pressure the legislature and the teachers unions for major concessions on union rights, including seniority but also how teachers are hired, transferred, and laid off, the authority of principals, and state intrusion into local evaluations of teachers. Stand for Children formed the Committee for Excellence in Education in 2011 to gather signatures for a ballot initiative. Using the threat of the ballot measure, in 2012 Stand for Children forced the Massachusetts Teachers Association into a legislative compromise seriously curtailing seniority rights. It was counted a big victory for Stand for Children.

Once upon a time Stand for Children was a grassroots organization of parents and educators but by 2009 it had been taken over by corporate privatizing interests. And 2009 was also a significant year because in FY 2010 (July 1, 2009-June 30, 2010) Strategic Grant Partners made a $30,000.00 grant to 501(c)(3) Stand for Children Leadership Center for “strategic planning/feasibility study.” In FY 2011 the donation increased to $375,000 for “capacity building” and in FY 2012 $575,000 for “capacity building.” There’s another $100,000 for “capacity building” in FY 2013 and a $300,000 boost in FY 2014. (All Fiscal Years, from SGP Form 990 tax returns). Let’s take a look at contributions from key figures to the IRS 501(c)(3) Stand for Children Leadership Center from 2008 – 2016 (available from Stand for Children annual reports online; 2015 unavailable):

Joshua Bekenstein is a consistent giver to the Leadership Center, the Jacobson Trust gets involved a bit in 2010 and thereafter, but Strategic Grant Partners is recorded with some pretty large donations in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Then SGP drops out. Klarman takes no interest.[1]

Fine, a 501(c)(3) like the Leadership Center (and SGP) can do a lot of things – recruit staff, organize, outreach, advocacy in the community, - but it can’t be involved in a ballot campaign. So let’s look at the same givers to the 501(c)(4) Stand for Children Inc., which can:

That’s right – none of these folks take any interest in Stand for Children Inc. except for the years it was acting on the ballot measure against the teachers unions, 2011 and 2012. Bekenstein gives $250,000 plus in 2011, Jacobson $250,000 plus in 2011 and $250,000 plus in 2012, and Klarman $250,000 in 2012.[1]

According to OCPF records, the Committee for Excellence in Education was formed in 2011 and disbanded in 2012. The Committee raised and spent $813,329 in just under eleven months, every penny from Stand for Children Inc. of Portland, Oregon. And it certainly looks like Stand for Children Inc. was funded in that time frame by Bekenstein, Jacobson, and Klarman.

There are a few things for OCPF to consider here. First, should the Committee for Excellence in Education and its funders be investigated, as I’ve urged should happen in the 2016 Great Schools Massachusetts/Families for Excellent Schools case? And if the investigation is sustained, don’t repeat offenders get enhanced penalties?

Second, as in the Great Schools Massachusetts/Families for Excellent Schools case, the key issue for OCPF is whether the money came out of Stand for Children Inc.’s general treasury or was solicited and funneled to Stand for Children Inc. for a political purpose. I think it’s pretty clear that the latter occurred. OCPF may want to think about how it looks at these cases, because what we have here is highly sophisticated business people investing over a protracted time period with a specific political target in mind. The general treasury is a fig leaf, in my opinion.

For all of us, the lesson is that a good chunk of state education policy is being purchased by a handful of plutocrats.

And as for the teachers unions, the lesson is that the next time a ballot question sweeps in with the tide, look past the phony civic minded names like Families for Excellent Schools and Stand for Children and identify the true funders. There are sharks out there.

 [Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money (and other things). I don't write about education policy.]

[1] There are also some generous Massachusetts givers to Stand for Children Inc. in these years but not generous enough to cover the operations of the Committee for Excellence in Education. It is also worth noting that Stand for Children, which as a 501(c)(4) is not required to reveal its contributors, listed four Anonymous contributors of $250,000.00 plus in 2011 and one such donor in 2012. There were two Anonymous donors of $100,000.00-$249,999.00 in 2012.

[1] There are some other big givers from Massachusetts to the Leadership Center too, and they give consistently. We’ll get to them another day.

Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, Strategic Grant Partners, dark money, Massachusetts Teachers Association

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